Action Half-Life: The 5AM

Every Sunday, we reach deep into Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s 142-year history to pull out one of the best moments from the archive. This week, Quintin’s brush with one of gaming’s most fearsome map secrets, originally published March 31st, 2010.

Strangest game I ever played?

Well, okay.

It started when we met in the underpass at dawn. The memory’s hazy now but I remember it was the underpass, and I remember it was dawn, because it was always dawn in AHL_5am.

You ever walked around a deathmatch map without anybody firing a shot? It’s creepy. The map’s still a dangerous place built from killzones and bad angles, but without all the noise and adrenaline filling things up you become aware of the presence of something else. I am telling you right here that every deathmatch map ever made is haunted as fuck. Got to be. That many people don’t die in one place without leaving some ghosts behind.

So, after meeting up the four of us made our way to the hotel where we knew our journey would start.

* The Hidden Love *

It is the hardest one I’ve made so far.

You must be on a roundless mode to access it.

I’m hesitant to use the word surreal in light of what lay ahead, but we definitely looked a strange bunch. My friends were Indiana Jones, a witheringly ugly Solid Snake and a Mr. T with day-glo orange skin. I think I was an Escape From New York era Snake Plissken, but I could have been anyone. I was a lot of people back in those days.

In the alleyway next to the hotel we waited and watched as Indiana Jones pulled a revolver and took a shot at a door. Boom. Nothing happened for a moment, and none of us said a word. Was the door the way in? No, it was just a texture. You could tell just from looking at it that it could never be opened and nothing lay behind it. Then Indiana turned around and made his way to a perfectly ordinary wall.

The rest of us watched as Indiana paused next to it, as if taking a breath, then clipped right through, vanishing from sight.

And now, the hints. These are all I will ever give…
To get in, try the hotel interior. However, the beginning is not IN the hotel.

This was what we’d come for. One by one we went through that portal and entered the 5 AM’s secret.

The game we were playing was Action Half-Life, an immaculately balanced mod built from a dream of FPS multiplayer combat that was more cinematic and less twitchy than what was offered at the time. AHL was our Counter-Strike, except it was slower and had more room for heroics and villainy.

But AHL was also the favoured mod of a mad cabal of mappers who obsessed over easter eggs. What had started as the routine addition of little secrets which l33t players could show their friends quickly spiraled out of all proportion as AHL grew in popularity, and soon levels were being unleashed on the community with entire levels hidden inside them, mazes so big, inventive and intricate that the PC modding scene hasn’t seen the likes of them since.

And if the AHL community was the mecca for crazy mappers, then Hondo was God. The immaculate deathmatch maps Hondo constructed were dwarfed by the secrets buried underneath them, areas so cruel, opaque and imaginative they felt like claustrophobic expeditions into a broken mind.

Two of Hondo’s secrets even tied together into a single epic saga where players traveled through time trying to defeat an inter-dimensional beast known as Hgrethedelon, who appeared as a giant, unblinking eye. To look upon Hgrethedelon was death, and one of these two linked secrets ended with players marooned on a floating island that gradually broke apart to reveal a city-sized eye staring up at them. Players were giving no choice but to fall into the inky iris, and drown.

AHL_5AM was Hondo’s swansong- on the surface a cramped city downtown intelligently designed to facilitate action and player motion, few of the players who dived around it and blew holes in one other knew what lay beneath their feet. Behind a secret portal in 5AM was a labyrinth so nightmarish that the only person who knew the way through was Hondo himself. No player had ever seen the end of it, and trying to decompile 5AM to look at it in a map editor would crash whatever software you were using.

So, of course my friends and I had to try and beat it.

We only knew three things on the muggy summer night we launched our expedition. We knew the way into the secret, we knew beating it required more than one person, and we knew those who had tried and failed before us talked in fear of something called ‘Pear smash’.

Stepping through the portal we were teleported onto the face of a giant luminous clock that was submerged in a well of darkness. The numbers I to XII floated in the air and marked out twelve hours, and above us two hands marked some meaningless time. All was silent. We looked at the secret and the secret gazed back at us. I felt like we were boring it already.

‘Right’, typed Snake.

‘Yep’, I replied. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting. Four hundred palette-swapped bullsquids or something.

As our first cautious steps turned into less cautious jogging we quickly found we were walled in. After a minute we realised something was wrong. There were now only three of us. Indiana Jones was missing. His message popped up on our screens before we had time to start panicking.

‘WALK THROUGH THE ONE. The number one. There’s an invisible door underneath it.’

And so we did, and one by one we got dumped into the first proper stage of the secret.

This took us to an ordinary domestic living room built entirely out of a blue wireframes, suspended in that same endless blackness. Again we began our professional investigative technique of spamming the use key and rubbing ourselves against walls. Mr. T found the way out of the house first, which seemed like good news until we watched him take his first step out of the room only to plummet like a stone down into the shadows, where his body landed with an ugly, fatal sound. He reported he’d respawned back in the deathmatch level and would retrace our steps.

As the rest of us were wondering what to do we saw something in the distance.

A driverless flat-bed truck with glaring headlights was coming trundling up out of the black. Without a word we all threw ourselves into the back as it passed, the truck speeding us off to some unknown destination.

To dismiss Hondo’s work as ‘weird’ or ‘confusing’ is missing the point. The abstract realities he and many others created during the golden age of Half-Life modding and mapping pushed gaming in a direction almost never seen in commercial projects. Games always strive and sweat to recreate the familiar because people react better to it – as a developer, to attempt to play with the surreal is to alienate potential buyers and doom your game to sink without a trace. Think Vangers, Outcast, Project Nomads, Anachronox, Psychonauts, Darwinia, or even Omikron, all of which bombed at release due to a lack of either customer interest or publisher support. People don’t react well to what they don’t understand.

But as a designer, to doggedly have to stick to real-world rules and imagery is an unbearably sad thing. Not only are you putting your imagination on a leash, you’re ruling out a whole toolset that can be used to get emotional responses from your players. So many feelings thrive in the unknown, not just surprise and confusion but also fear, awe and wonder. Look at something like Morrowind. One of the reasons it earned itself a rabid fanbase while Oblivion merely sold well is because the creatures, cultures, architecture and landscapes in Morrowind were unlike anything we’d seen before. By contrast, Oblivion was trite. There is no moment in Oblivion that rivals getting lost in the Ashlands, seeing your first Netch or Silt Strider or piecing together the island’s odd bit of slang (fetcher, enwah, serah).

Or, to put it another way: the familiar is fucking boring, and some of us will dig very deep to find something new.

Back in 5AM we’d now made it through hours 1, 2, 3 and 4. Hour 5 had stayed closed for some reason, but 6 was wide open.

Hour 3 had taken the biggest bite out of our stamina so far. It turned out to be a maze (joy) where the floor, walls and ceiling constantly flashed through a seizure inducing pattern of the brightest colours the engine could muster. Every time I ended up back at the start of the maze I’d felt a spark of genuine panic, and finally escaping it to be deposited back on the clock’s face was like sinking my eyes, brain and soul into a warm bath. So far progress had been tough, but nowhere near tough enough. We were being toyed with.

Hour 6 dropped us into a giant chamber made entirely out of alternating red and white tiles. Again we scouted the perimeter of the room and started flinging ourselves against walls like moshers to find the way out, but this time it wasn’t so easy. Ten minutes later we were still stuck, and I decided to take a break to go pee. Looking away from the monitor it was with no small amount of gut-terror that I realised something was very wrong and turned back to type a message to my friends.

‘OH FUCK’, I sent, followed by ‘LOOK AWAY FROM THE MONITOR.’

My friends’ responses were almost instantaneous. ‘oh god’, ‘ARGH’, ‘No fucking way’.

Our real worlds had turned monochrome. Some optical trick involving those red and white tiles had broken our eyes, and we could only see in pea green, sickly yellow and all the shades in between.

Doing our best to ignore this exciting new disability we returned to the game and began spacking against the walls with a new, crazed meticulousness, each of us splitting up to check one wall. We found the exit five minutes later- a single tile you had to jump to fit through. That got us back on the clock with hour 7 now open, and we dived into it with the same ferocious emptiness that had driven us here in the first place.

The four of us found ourselves at the bottom of a pit then. A simple brown pit that was so small we were standing shoulder to shoulder. Looking up we could easily make out the opening at the top, but it was obscured by something big and green that filled the whole pit–

‘oh NO THE PEAR SMASH’ typed Snake as the rest of stared up dumbly. The shape was getting closer. For the thousandth time that night we scrabbled at the walls, but this time it was pointless. There was nothing to be found. AHL does let you lie down though, and we all expertly flung ourselves to the floor hoping the massive pear would stop before getting that low.

It didn’t stop. In one thundering crush we were all reduced to paste.

We respawned in deathmatch formation back in the level, guns out and separated, as if the game was trying to stop this nonsense and get us back to killing each other. And while we’d arrived at that special time of night where perseverance turns to idiocy in your head, we’d also reached the meat of Hondo’s secret.

‘Alright’, Indiana Jones typed from whatever corner of the map he was in. ‘Let’s try that again.’

And so we did, and again we got our brains caved in by the giant pear. We were missing something. And so, with exhaustion peering over all of our shoulders, we started looking.

I could tell you we found that something we were looking for. I could tell you Indiana Jones found the switch behind the exit of the epilepsy maze, and that Solid Snake spotted the one sticking out of a wall in the eye-ruining prison. I could tell you Mr. T hit the third switch on the ceiling of the swiss-cheese room and that I found the last one by riding the truck past all the Escher-like staircases to the end of the non-existent road.

I could tell you that once all those switches were flipped it opened up a means of getting on top of the pear if someone acted as bait and lured it down first.

And it’s tempting to say we did manage it all, just to make this into a proper story, but we didn’t. Not even a little bit. After another hour of searching we gave up. We only found out about the switches when we read a guide to ahl_5am, months later, that got slightly further than us before the author’s team had encountered their own brick wall.

And you know what? I don’t mind that we didn’t make it. Not because we got further than so many others before us, and not simply because we tried, and not because of all the horrific crap that lay in wait that the guide went on to describe- the ugly tanks, the Forbidden Street, the reversed gravity, the dismembered little girl you find in a briefcase and then have to leave one player alone with to progress.

None of that matters to me. The reason I don’t mind that we didn’t make it is because that leaves AHL_5am a mystery.

To this day I’m not sure anyone’s made it to the end of the secret. No-one but Hondo himself, and he’s dropped off the internet since. That means that any group of gamers on the planet can still be the first team to make it through, write a guide and immortalize themselves in gaming history, defeating Hondo and turning his nightmare into a tourist attraction.

Maybe it’ll be you. What are you afraid of? Action Half-Life can still be found on the internet, and the 5am is still out there, still waiting. It can wait all day.

33 Comments

  1. skyturnedred says:

    My favourite Half-Life mod of all time. I quite liked The Specialists too, but AHL will always have a special place in my heart.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Yeah, I credit AHL with many years of online multiplayer fun, my introduction to running my own game server, and my ongoing distaste for Counter-Strike to this day. (At the time, I just saw it as a weaker, less fun, but inexplicably more popular version of AHL.)

    • derbefrier says:

      yup same here, well TFC probably still wins as my favorite but AHL is a very, very, close second. I played this shit ut of it back in the day.

    • CMaster says:

      Always preferred The Opera myself. I know AHL was more polished, and TS had more features, but TO had amazing movement and thematic clarity.

      • Already Gone says:

        I loved The Opera for the objective reason that I always got the most points on the level with the dance floor. (The trick was to keep moving and never go into the restroom, which is also the rule for most actual nightclubs.)

    • LexW1 says:

      AHL was the bloody best. I played a lot of realistic/semi-realistic mods back then, and AHL was by far the most actual fun, especially with people you know. Having played a lot of shooters since, I think it’s safe to say there’s never been anything quite like it. It was an intimate sort of thing, aimed at 4-8 players, typically (instead of today’s 16-64), and actually aiming to be like an action movie, rather than trying to be all “war”-ish or about “counter-terrorists” or similar boring bullshit.

      It doesn’t surprise me that something really weird like this would be in AHL, either. It had that sort of febrile atmosphere where almost anything seems like it could happen.

  2. vorador says:

    Never played AHL, because i didn’t had internet at home and on internet cafés everybody i knew were into Counter-Strike and always goddammed de_dust.

    They never played anything else. And i mean nothing else.

  3. mukuste says:

    This is really long and I only had time to skim it so far but, uh, is this some sort of creepypasta?

    • RiptoR says:

      If you’re asking if Action Half-Life is a creepypasta game, then no. It’s a multiplayer mod with The Matrix/Max Payne style gameplay.

      Was a lot of fun back in the day, especially on LAN parties.

      • mukuste says:

        I meant the article, not the game. It reminds me of those “haunted NES cartridge” stories or whatever.

        I’m pretty sure I did play AHL back in the day and had some good fun in it.

        • StarkeRealm says:

          It’s not. It’s got a lot of the elements you expect from one, but, ultimately, it’s about a weird mod that feels like a portal to some kind of hell, rather than a weird mod that IS a portal to some kind of hell and letting things out.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Sleepymatt says:

    Jeez, I forgot how much I miss Quinns.

    • jaheira says:

      He’s a fantastic writer and I wish he stayed at RPS.

    • Oozo says:

      Very much this. I won’t say that the current reincarnatin of the hive mind is not a bunch of lovely and talented people (they certainly are), but I encountered RPS during the rare days when both Kieron and Quinns were semi-regularly writing here — and I can’t help always feeling like it was some Golden Age. Not necessarily for RPS, but for me with RPS. Two hell of two writers.

      And let’s face it: everytime someone leaves here, it sucks. (That Jim disappeared from the credits recently was equally saddening.)

  5. MiniMatt says:

    142 year history, Shirley? Didn’t Horace get you a new calendar for Horacemas?

  6. Chuckleluck says:

    Ahem. As a member of Morrowind’s rabid fanbase, I have to point out that it is “n’wah” not “enwah”.

  7. Jericho says:

    Oh man, such memories! I remember waiting around for Hondo to release his final puzzle in ahl_5am and then spent most of a year trying to get to the end of it. The problem, as pointed out in the article, is that the puzzle requires several players to be working in tandem to press timed switches and trigger things such as the PEAR SMASH! in order to progress. Even if you know how the first few stages of the puzzle are solved it still takes hours to move through it.

    Personally, I made it as far as the isolated hotel room with the dismembered anime girl in the suitcase. You have to wait in there alone for several minutes until you are “attacked” by the “ghost” of the girl and eventually killed, and in the moments that that occurs it opens the portal to the next part of the puzzle, which someone else must then go through and “lock” from the other side so that others can then enter as well. But by the time I made to the room and the girl’s body parts, and the suitcase we had been in the level for several hours, and everyone else but myself had left.

    Also, in case anyone is unfamiliar with these “Hondo Puzzles”, it’s good that the article doesn’t include any screencaps of what the puzzle rooms look like. Just about every single puzzle in ahl_5am is designed to do something with the HL engine to make it hard to see/hear/move through the map, or are just designed to be surrealistic or horrific (oh god the SUITCAS…)

    The point is, everyone likes to use the Matrix joke of “No one can be told what the XX is, you must experience it for yourself”, but with the Hondo Puzzles this is most certainly the case. Even with the descriptions above, actually EXPERIENCING the puzzles in 3D space is completely mind-blowing. Imagine Antichamber, except designed by Salvidor Dali, but filled with equal parts M.C. Escher, body horror snuff, and then all blended into a smoothy of insane by H.R. Giger.

    And that still doesn’t get the experience across that well…

    I don’t know whatever happened to Hondo after AHL, but I hope he’s still out there, silently building insane worlds inside of pocket dimensions inside of cafes inside of fire hydrants…

    • Jericho says:

      Actually, it seems that someone has made a video guide to the whole ahl_5am puzzle and put it on YouTube. For those that don’t mind getting the whole experience spoiled, here you go:

      Part 1: link to youtube.com

      Part 2: link to youtube.com

      So I guess the hotel room with the suitcase that I made it to was nearly the end of the puzzle. So. Damn. CLOSE.

      • Notebooked says:

        Despite myself, I couldn’t get rid of the slight expectation that both links would just be static, proving this to be some elaborate creepypasta. Wonderful to be proven wrong, though.

    • bear912 says:

      I don’t remember when I first read this article, but it convinced one of my roommates to actually try the 5AM with me in 2011 or 2012. It was no trivial feat, either. After downloading Action Half-Life and the appropriate map files (including, I think, a custom skybox that had to be placed in a particular folder or the game would crash–my memory of the details is a bit fuzzy), we printed out the most complete walkthrough we could find and nailed it to our freestanding loft as if we were detectives pinning evidence to a case board in a crime drama. We spent the rest of the day working painstakingly through the nearly-opaque madness of the secret, following a guide we weren’t even sure would lead us to the end. While I think we did reach the end, my friend remained–and probably remains to this day–convinced that there was more to be discovered. It was one of the strangest and best memories I have of a video game.

      Also, seeing this article again makes me miss reading Quinns here, even if the current set of writers is the best it’s been since he left.

      Addendum: This is a good reason to visit the original post, by the way.

      • Jericho says:

        Wow, I didn’t realize that Hondo had actually seen and responded to the old article four years ago. I’m glad he did and was able to get some recognition for his work.

  8. yohanCs says:

    Best half life mod of all time without a doubt..
    If you like it and also CS and think of compete, you should check out
    http://gaming.zensplit.com

  9. SubparFiddle says:

    I think that pear room may have affected Quinns more than he let’s on in this article.

  10. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    Is it supposed to look like that or did Quintin’s mom neglect to check his jeans pockets again?

  11. BigEyeGuy says:

    I have very similar memories from AHL I loved the map secrets (and the action) and roaming around in places I know I probably should not have access to. I saw people mention The Specialists here which was another similar concept mod done very well. I would add to that The Opera mod which had wonderful special movement for the characters kinda like The Specialists but a bit more intricate.

    All in all the Half Life 1 mod era was a great time for me, there was a lot of fresh ideas and people being creative and a lot of small communities I am still in touch with today (Wasteland Half-Life or “The Wastes”)

    • TwwIX says:

      Aye. I still remember blasting my silenced Uzi while doing cartwheels in that Disco map. It even had a co-op mode. Mook match. The devs didn’t support it that well and it pretty much got overshadowed once The Specialists released its first beta. I love all of the but The Specialists had by far the smoothest movement system and great weapon handling. It even had hundreds of third party mods thanks to the active community. From maps to high poly weapon and character models. Great stuff. It’s a shame that it’s not around anymore.

      It has a spiritual successor though link to store.steampowered.com

      • Already Gone says:

        I’ve often wondered how different my life would be if I’d spent as much time in real discos as I had in that The Opera map.

        Probably I’d be paralyzed after attempting to somersault down the stairs.

      • BigEyeGuy says:

        Great! I did not know this existed

        Awesome.

  12. aterriblesomething says:

    this article is *THE* reason i started reading RPS regularly.

  13. ThePostMortems says:

    So, did some digging, and the Action Half-Life Director’s Cut install is easy to find, but I had a harder time with the Hondo maps, until I found a directory just out there in the ether: link to piny.be